Horror and humour - and a Christmas wish for peace

THERE was little doubt in the summer of 1939 that Britain was moving inexorably towards war with the Nazis.

Horror and humour - and a Christmas wish for peace

THERE was little doubt in the summer of 1939 that Britain was moving inexorably towards war with the Nazis. Turn the pages of the East Anglian Daily Times from that period and the underlying sense of anxiety is almost palpable. Life carried on as usual, on the surface, but in among the usual items were hints that all was definitely not well.

Early August, for instance, brought a report of Stradbroke fete, with its fancy dress parade, baby show and cycle races. There were also the Lindbergh Brothers, who dived in flames from a 75ft tower into a bucket of blazing water and petrol. Meanwhile, in Charlton, London, a barrage balloon had fallen on a house, tearing down telephone wires and guttering but thankfully not injuring a woman and a sweep inside at the time.

A recruiting meeting on behalf of the new National Defence Company of the Suffolk Regiment was held at Sudbury British Legion Club. Officer Commanding Col Harold Hooper said recruits were coming in steadily, with interest from former servicemen “who were now required for a definite and important job of work”, said the report.


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On Wednesday ,August 2, the paper published details of a letter former Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden had sent to constituents. He told them: “We are in a period of a war of nerves and a prolonged testing time lies ahead of us.”

He continued: “Whatever the fluctuations in the next few months, it would be foolish to imagine that a happy issue can immediately be found from the dangers of the present time. Let us not pretend that it can. We have had enough false dawns and too many optimistic forecasts that have been soon falsified. . . Meanwhile, the firmer we stand, the shorter the period of trial and the less risk of war.”

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His words were given added poignancy by the somewhat surreal placing of this article to the right of recipes “By Madge” for buns and doughnuts, ribbon sandwich, and Victoria sponge mixture.

Eden warned that the nation that yearns for peace “can only hope to do so by showing that it is ready to sacrifice the very thing it most desires to keep,” and he concluded: “At long last the grim truth has everywhere been understood in this country.”

The second week of August reported on “Britain's greatest blackout”, as 27,000 square miles (including East Anglia) remained in darkness for four hours - a large-scale practice for what might be coming. During the exercise, which included mock attacks, observers scanned the skies for invading raiders.

Ipswich Gas Light Company's ARP squad carried out exercises at the gasworks in Holy Wells Road, including pretend raids and dealing with casualties and fires. Meanwhile, chief engineer Mr Garrard told the EADT, air-raid shelters there were complete.

Headlines told of “Premier's Grave Statement to House of Commons” . . . “Faced with Imminent Peril of War”. The Commons gave the Government full emergency powers.

Page nine carried pictures of the first evacuated children arriving in Ipswich on special trains, and reports about the first batch of 2,500 youngsters from London to be removed to Colchester. More would follow in coming days. Bury St Edmunds was another destination for evacuees.

“In the main,” said the report from Colchester, “the children bore an utterly unconcerned air. Some, indeed, were looking forward to the change from the East End of London to the country air.”

That Saturday, as the final hours of peace slipped by, Ipswich Town took on Norwich City in a local derby watched by 10,792 spectators. It ended 1-1, with Chadwick scoring first for the home side. The EADT described it as a “dour struggle” . . .

In early September the EADT reported there would be fewer evening trolleybuses in Ipswich and that the final collection of post at both the main Cornhill post office and the sorting office would be brought forward by half an hour - albeit it to the time of 10.30pm, which nowadays scarcely seems credible.

Miss E Ablitt, from Hasketon Road in Woodbridge, wrote to the newspaper with a wheeze that could prove “a godsend to poor people who are unable to afford curtains for their windows. Newspaper, three pieces thick, put together with stamp paper or needle and thread and placed on the woodwork of the windows with drawing pins, has proved a perfect black-out”.

Somewhat grumpier was the Rev O Manby, of Rishangles Rectory, who suggested that people with wireless sets “refrain from loud reception and shut down their receivers by 11pm. Rest is needed by all of us at this time”.

The Football League was suspended, as were Ipswich Hockey Club activities and Suffolk County Golf Union matches. Suffolk Horse Society's autumn sale was off.

On September 6 it was reported that two German steamers had been sunk. A British ship had been lost, mercifully with the loss of only one life.

Meanwhile, Colchester market gardener George Potter, 52, was fined the maximum �5 for assaulting an air-raid warden on East Hill after complaints about light showing.

On October 2 came news of “a thrilling duel” over the Siegfried Line between five RAF aircraft and 15 German Messerschmitt. (The Siegfried Line was near-400-mile German defence system of bunkers, tunnels and tank traps snaking along its western borders with the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France.)

By November 6 there was still no sign of a large-scale German offensive, as the “Western front maintains its calm.”

On Friday, December 22, the EADT carried a picture of Ronald Harvey, the page at the Ipswich Odeon theatre, who was only 3ft 11ins tall and weighed four and a half stone. Nevertheless, he'd offered to enlist when his 20th birthday came. A medical board decided, however, that his stature precluded him from military service.

The following day's edition contained a slightly confused report about unidentified aircraft circling over an unnamed coastal Suffolk town on the Friday, at great height. Sounds of gunfire were heard and residents rushed into the streets. No air-raid warning was sounded. Meanwhile, two Nazi bombers - the same planes? - were shot down into the sea off the East Coast and at the Firth of Forth in Scotland.

That Saturday, the last paper before Christmas, the EADT comment column remarked that, despite sad deaths, Christmas 1939 should be one of devout thankfulness that, so far, the evil forces had been largely held in check.

“The British people, along with their Allies, have every reason for satisfaction at the march of events which are the direct outcome of their determination to remove abominations that corrupt and threaten to destroy civilisation and Christianity itself. They are thankful for the courage and ready self-sacrifice of their defenders by land, sea and air. With their thankfulness will be a prayer that before another Christmastide comes round there will be that greatest of all blessings for humanity - peace.”

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